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Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

MEX  OF MATHEMATICS
unpestered by pedants, Hermite became a good classicist and
the master of a beautiful clear prose.
Those who hate examinations will love Hermite. There is
something in the careers of these two most famous alumni of
Louis-le-Grand, Galois and Hermite. which might well cause the
advocates of examinations as a reliable yardstick for arranging
human beings hi order of intellectual merit to ask themselves
whether they have used their heads or their feet in arriving at
their conclusions. It was only by the grace of God and the diplo-
matic persistence of the devoted and intelligent Professor
Richard, who had done his unavailing best fifteen years before
to save Galois for science, that Hermite was not tossed out by
stupid examiners to rot on the rubbish heap of failure. While
still a student at the lycee,, Hermite, following in the steps of
Galois, supplemented and neglected his elementary lessons by
private reading at the library of Sainte-Genevieve, where he
found and mastered the memoir of Lagrange on the solution of
numerical equations. Saving up his pennies, he bought the
French translation of the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae of Gauss
and3 what is more, mastered it as few before or since have
mastered it. By the time he had followed what Gauss had done
Hermite was ready to go on. ;It was in these two books'., he
loved to say in later life, "that I learned Algebra.' Euler and
Laplace also instructed him through then- works. And yet
Hermite^s performance in examinations was, to say the most
flattering thing possible of it, mediocre. Mathematical nonen-
tities beat him out of sight.
Mindful of the tragic end of Galois, Richard tried his best to
steer Hermite away from original investigation to the less
exciting though muddier waters of the competitive examina-
tions for entrance to the ficole Polytechnique - the filthy ditch
in which Galois had drowned himself. Nevertheless the good
Richard could not refrain from telling Hermite's father that
Charles was *a young Lagrange'.
The Nouvelles Annales de Mathematiques, a journal devoted
to the interests of students in the higher schools, was founded
in 1842. The first volume contains two papers composed by
Hermite while he was still a student at Louis-le-Grand. Hie
490